Advertisement

If it’s the last run for this special UCLA team, the Bruins want to make it a marathon

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard react during a news conference.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., from, left, Tyger Campbell, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard react during a news conference for the NCAA tournament on Thursday in Philadelphia.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
Share

If you watch it closely before tipoff, you can begin to understand why Mick Cronin wanted to keep this team intact as long as possible.

You can hear the Bruins’ devotion to one another in the way they roar after Tyger Campbell throws a between-the-legs lob off the backboard to Jaime Jaquez Jr. for a rim-rattling dunk as part of a pregame tradition.

You can see it in the way David Singleton playfully bounces off his teammates’ bodies after delivering a stream-of-consciousness speech in the hype huddle.

Advertisement

You can feel it in the way they lock arms around each other’s shoulders, no one wanting to budge.

Cronin could recruit more highly ranked prospects, have better teams, win more games at UCLA.

He may never have a group as connected as this one again.

The UCLA bench erupts in joy after reserve UCLA Bruins guard Russell Stong (43) makes a long shot late in the game
Westwood, CA, Thursday, January 27, 2022 - The UCLA bench erupts in joy after reserve UCLA Bruins guard Russell Stong (43) makes a long shot late in the game against the California Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Everyone came back from that Final Four run, wanting to run it back one more time together. That delighted Cronin, who understood the benefits of so much collective experience, not to mention collective success.

“These guys have been together a long time,” Cronin said as his fourth-seeded Bruins (27-7) prepared to face eighth-seeded North Carolina (26-9) in an NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center. “I think it matters.”

Before he coached his first game with the Bruins upon departing Cincinnati, fans wondered which players Cronin might bring with him, which players he would want to keep, which players he would run off.

Advertisement

The answers: nobody, everybody, nobody.

UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell’s iconic mane has triggered taunts, but he responds with poised play that vaulted the Bruins into the Sweet 16.

March 24, 2022

Only one player has left since Cronin’s arrival, forward Shareef O’Neal bolting for Louisiana State halfway through that first season, before the wins came and those who remained started to coalesce.

Meanwhile, Cronin has imported pieces only as needed through the transfer portal, adding Johnny Juzang for scoring and Myles Johnson for interior defense. The fiery Juzang and the easygoing Johnson have been universally embraced by their new teammates.

The core has remained intact. Starters Jules Bernard, Cody Riley and Campbell have been together for four years. Jaquez, who is expected to push through his ankle injury to play against the Tar Heels, has been part of the team for three years, arriving alongside Cronin. The new coach didn’t care that his predecessor signed Jaquez, embracing him like a son.

“Loyalty is something that’s big in building relationships,” Bernard said, “and from the beginning, there was a bond in the sense that coach Cronin came in and stuck with the guys that were there and that’s very telling of the type of person he is and meant a lot to the team.”

Still, the questions persisted. Mike Warren, the former UCLA All-American guard on two national championship teams, asked Cronin earlier this week why he didn’t bring Logan Johnson with him from Cincinnati. The query came after Warren watched the guard who transferred from Cincinnati to Saint Mary’s upon Cronin’s departure score 18 points against the Bruins in the second round.

It’s the same sort of stuff Cronin has heard since his early days in Westwood, when he was continually asked why he didn’t sign more guards.

Advertisement
UCLA's Tyger Campbell, left, smiles during practice for the NCAA men's college basketball tournament.
UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, left, smiles during practice for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

His response?

“Well,” Cronin said, recalling his explanation, “because I thought for us to get where I came here to get and do what I came here to do, I needed to build with these guys.”

There was some pain accompanying a strategy that relied on perseverance. The Bruins had a losing record midway through Cronin’s first season, including a 74-64 loss to North Carolina in Las Vegas. Once the feeling out among players and coaches was completed and roles solidified, the Bruins won 11 of their last 14 games before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the postseason tournaments.

The team hit another late-season stride a year ago, going from the First Four to the Final Four after trailing in four of the five games they won. Those were the moments when the bonds forged before games and during late nights in each other’s hotel rooms playing Super Smash Bros. kept the Bruins from fraying.

“We go through challenges in a game,” Bernard said, “and where most teams might break down or start arguing with each other, that’s when we really come together the most.”

Returning essentially the same team this season only strengthened the Bruins’ resolve. They returned to the Sweet 16 thanks to strong defense, steady playmaking and the ability to out-tough teams that don’t enjoy the same level of trust.

Advertisement

“It’s just the support for one another,” Juzang said of the Bruins’ togetherness. “You can feel it, and honestly I think it’s just gone to another level when it comes to tournament time. … It’s, I think, at this level what you need to win.”

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. is expected to play for the Bruins in their Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina on Friday after practicing on sprained ankle.

March 24, 2022

The surging Tar Heels will provide another reminder of someone Cronin might have landed on his roster had he taken a different approach. The coach heavily recruited North Carolina guard RJ Davis while Cronin was at Cincinnati, a pursuit he abandoned once he took the UCLA job.

“We had Tyger,” Cronin said, “and I just thought, ‘You know, I’m going to build with these guys’ and it’s worked out.”

It’s taken the Bruins back to the biggest stage in college basketball in what could be a farewell for Riley and Bernard, among others. Everyone on the team has remaining eligibility, but Cronin has acknowledged that a few will move on to other things, whether it’s the NBA draft, playing overseas or life after basketball.

“I’m very, very cognizant of the fact that this could be our last ride together as a group,” Cronin said. “It’s been awesome, though. Hope we got 10 or 11 more days left in us.”

Advertisement